Diet and Exercise for Pain Reduction

Keeping a healthy diet and participating in daily activity will often help ease chronic pain symptoms.

Anti-Inflammatory Diet for Chronic Pain

Aside from improving overall health and well-being, avoiding inflammatory foods, such as those high in sugar and fat may reduce pain related to fibromyalgia, arthritis, and neck pain. Examples of inflammation causing foods include:

  • Processed foods, such as prepackaged meals
  • Red meat
  • Refined sugar, such as candy, soda, cereal, and ketchup
  • Deep-fried foods
  • Refined grains, such as white bread and pasta

People are encouraged to read food labels while grocery shopping and avoid those that contain corn syrup, sugar, and refined flour.


Emphasis on Whole Foods

Research suggests that certain foods, like most fruit and vegetables, contain chemical compounds that reduce inflammation in the body. An anti-inflammatory diet typically consists of:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Healthy fats
  • Fish
  • Lean meat
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes (beans and nuts)

Not every anti-inflammatory diet is the same, and speaking with a doctor or nutritionist is often helpful. Anti-inflammatory diet guides and individual recipes are available in cookbooks and online.

Exercise for Chronic Pain

Generally, people with chronic pain benefit from staying active. Below are some of the benefits that exercise provides.

  • Improved blood flow and oxygen. Exercise promotes better blood flow and oxygen to the brain, which can help improve neuroplasticity: the mechanism that allows the brain to adapt and change. Research suggests that people with chronic pain often have reduced neuroplasticity and an increased sensitivity to pain.
  • Reduced stiffness. Stretching and moving the body will relax muscles that are often tense due to chronic pain. Stiffness can often make symptoms worse.
  • Improved mental outlook. Exercise improves overall mood by reducing negative feelings, including anxiety and depression.
  • Enhanced muscle tone. Regular exercise can lead to stronger muscles, which may help with balance and posture.
  • Improved sleep. Exercise may improve the quality and length of sleep as well as decrease daytime sleepiness.1

Exercise can also lead to weight loss, which can improve pain because the pressure on joints is reduced. Moderate amounts of exercise may improve pain tolerance by changing how a person perceives pain.2


Chronic pain, and what causes it, varies from person to person. An exercise that works for one person might not work for another, which is why it is important to speak with a doctor, physical therapist, or other trusted health professional when deciding on a fitness activity. Below are the most common types of exercise to help with chronic pain.

  • Yoga combines meditation, breath control, and specific movements to stretch and strengthen the body. It is considered a movement therapy, and has been found to improve posture and mobility as well as have a positive effect on mood.
  • Pilates emphasizes alignment, balance, and a strong core. It focuses on specific movements with an emphasis on technique. This movement therapy can be done using special equipment or on a mat.
  • Water therapy exercises encompass a range of treatments and movements done in a pool. Water-based exercise puts less pressure on the body and provides a gentler environment when compared to land-based activity. Exercises include simple routines performed in shallow water to using underwater treadmills for conditioning.
  • Tai chi is a movement therapy that uses low impact, flowing, movements and pays special attention to deep breathing to help reduce chronic pain symptoms.
  • Qigong is a movement therapy similar to tai chi with a focus on repetitive, fluid, movements and an emphasis on being mindful.

Most of these activities are offered in group settings and led by an instructor, however instructional videos are typically available online.


  • 1.O'connor PJ, Youngstedt SD. Influence of exercise on human sleep. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 1995;23:105-34.
  • 2.Jones MD, Booth J, Taylor JL, Barry BK. Aerobic training increases pain tolerance in healthy individuals. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2014;46(8):1640-7.